NFL Training Camp is the first taste of competition that most football fans get before the new season starts.
Especially this year in New Orleans Saints training camp, where Coach Sean Payton will be trying to turn his team around from two very disappointing seasons that had average results from a team that most Saints fans believed to be an above-average team.
Some may attribute the unsatisfactory 8-8 and 7-9 records from the past two seasons to injuries, but it was obvious that the Saints shortcomings were the result of their defense, which finished last season ranked 23rd in the NFL in overall defense and 26th in scoring defense.
During the offseason, the front office did everything they could to turn things around by hiring a new defensive coordinator, signing several defensive players in free agency and using three of the four picks in this year’s draft to add depth to that side of the ball.
With this much change on to the defense, competition will be a major theme at this year’s training camp for the Saints.
With the exception of a few players, just about everyone on the Saints defense has a chance to either gain or lose a starting job, depending on how they perform in training camp.
Here are a few of the competitions that Saints fans should keep an eye out for once training camp starts on July 31:
Position: Both starting cornerback spots
Projected Starter(s): Randall Gay and Jabari Greer
Other Competitors: Malcolm Jenkins and Tracy Porter
This group has been the blame for the majority of the bad play that has been forwarded by the defense. From injuries sustained by Tracy Porter and Mike McKenzie to below-par play by Usama Young and Jason David, this unit could not catch a break—or an interception—last season.
In order to fix this problem, GM Mickey Loomis signed Jabari Greer to a four-year, $23 million contract this offseason and drafted Malcolm Jenkins with the team’s first round draft pick.
Greer is expected to come in and utilize his five years of experience in Buffalo to snatch a starting job and Gay ended last season as the team’s starter, so he should enter the next season in the same role.
While Jenkins is not expected to come in and take anybody’s starting position, most Saints fans expect him to come in and have an immediate impact on the defense. So if he were to come in and relieve either one of the veterans of their starting duties, I doubt anyone will be surprised.
Porter, who accumulated 25 tackles and an interception before sustaining a season-ending wrist injury in the fifth game of the season, is also expected to put up a fight for one of the starting spots, as well.
He came in as a rookie last season and earned a starting job after an outstanding training camp and preseason. Saints fans shouldn’t be surprised if he does the same thing this season.
Position: Second Starter at Defensive Tackle
Projected Starter(s): Kendrick Clancy
Other Competitors: Remi Ayodele, DeMario Pressley and Rod Coleman
With the Saints parting ways with both Brian Young and Hollis Thomas this offseason, the team now had to figure out who they will use alongside Ellis at defensive tackle.
Clancy was solid in this spot last season while filling in for the oft-injured veterans Young and Hollis. He finished the season with 34 tackles, two sacks and three forced fumbles.
Both Ayodele and Pressley are young players are young players with very little experience, so they will be expected to come in and play backup roles to Ellis and Clancy.
Coleman, on the other hand, has the chance to be a wild card in this competition. While the 10-year veteran hasn’t played a full season of football since 2006, if he can somehow return to being the player he once was a few years ago, he can easily snatch a starting job on the Saints defensive line.
The former Falcon and Raider accumulated 58.5 sacks over his career, including three seasons of double-digit sack numbers. He doesn’t have to return to be a dominating force in the middle like he once was, but if he can provide the Saints with a solid option at this position, Williams will undoubtedly make sure he gets in the game.
Position: Free Safety
Projected Starter(s): Darren Sharper
Other Competitors: Malcolm Jenkins, Pierson Prioleau and Usama Young
If there was one position that could have been argued to be as unproductive as the Saints’ cornerbacks, it was there free safeties.
The combination of Kevin Kaesviharn and Josh Bullocks were ineffective too often for the Saints defense last season, so as a result, the team allowed both of them leave in free agency.
When Gregg Williams came to New Orleans he knew in order to execute his defense successfully he would need a ball-hawking free safety to be the quarterback of his secondary in the same manner that Blaine Bishop and Sean Taylor once played on some of his best defensive units.
So once Darren Sharper became available as a free-agent Williams knew he needed the 13-year veteran to take over the role as the leader of his secondary. Sharper has come to New Orleans and, seemingly, the Saints problems at free safety are now a thing of the past.
Part of the reason that the Saints loved Jenkins so much going into the draft was the fact that he was so versatile. Jenkins was one of the best cornerbacks in the nation while he was at Ohio State and some scouts argued he would have been even better if he had played safety.
So if Jenkins comes in and proves those scouts to be correct and becomes an effective free safety, it won’t be surprising to see him push Sharper for that starting spot.
Young, partly due to his ineffectiveness at cornerback, is being transitioned this offseason to the free safety spot in order to take advantage of his playmaking abilities.
While some reports are saying that Young is looking to have picked up his position switch quite seamlessly, it is highly unlikely he will be fighting for a starting spot anytime soon.
Some might say that this offseason is no different from other and that the Saints always have some sort of position battle in training camp, but that isn’t exactly correct.
In the past, battles were a result of not having a player capable of claiming the spot with his play, but this year they are because the Saints have too many people willing to fill these roles.
I’m sure this is a problem they don’t mind having at all.